October 3, 2016

Review: The Selling Of The Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball And Created A Legend, By Glenn Stout

Baseball historian Glenn Stout has written previously about the Boston Red Sox's historic sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees following the 1919 season.

In Red Sox Century and this 2004 ESPN article, Stout presented a deep understanding and an accurate portrayal of an event that has for decades been the subject of rumour, conjecture, and outright falsehoods.

Stout's book-length treatment of the subject, The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend (Thomas Dunne) is a well-researched and entertaining account of what still stands as baseball's most famous transaction.

[Note: I received two copies of this book from the publisher, one of which was the prize in this year's W-L contest. In addition, Stout cites my book on the 1918 Red Sox in his research of Ruth's time in Boston.]

Stout argues that "no other personality in sports has been so exalted, mythologized, and obscured by history". How someone can be the most exalted and the most obscured may seem contradictory, but many aspects of Ruth's life are a near blank. His childhood, for example. And no matter how much attention is paid to Ruth's performances on the baseball field, the more one learns about him, the more one actually starts believing that the man considered the game's greatest player was underrated.

No matter how much we learn about Ruth, he is never diminished. Even as we learn more facts, and the enormity of his greatness grows, he seems more outsized, his baseball career appearing even more improbable. Ruth's obituary in the New York Times hit the nail on the head: "Probably nowhere in all the imaginative field of fiction could one find a career more dramatic and bizarre than that portrayed in real life by George Herman Ruth."

What Stout does in The Selling of the Babe is look at why the Red Sox wanted to rid themselves of the extraordinarily talented Ruth - who was doing double-duty as a pitcher and an outfielder in 1919, while setting a new single-season home run record - and to discuss the sale in the context of Red Sox owner Harry Frazee's contentious relationship with American League president Ban Johnson.

Because the sale of the Red Sox to Frazee was not brokered by Johnson, who was far from an impartial executive and actually had financial stakes in several different AL teams, there was animosity between Frazee and Johnson from the very beginning. Because Frazee had no ties to Johnson, because he owed him nothing, Frazee also had no reason to be loyal to the despotic head of the league.

His battles with Johnson, however, had split the league in two, some magnates remaining loyal to Johnson, others banding with Frazee and calling themselves the "Insurrectos". Two of the teams aligned with Frazee were the Yankees and White Sox - and those clubs ended up being the possible landing places for the talented yet troublesome Ruth if a trade could be arranged.

Stout states in his last two years in Boston, 1918 and 1919, Ruth was a streaky hitter, "a tease, with brief periods of explosive power followed by long droughts". Although Ruth was becoming a transcendent figure in the game, at some point during the 1919 season, Frazee realized it would be advantageous to sell high on Ruth and at the same time rid himself of this colossal headache. (Even a cursory study of Ruth's off-the-field actions reveal that the young pitcher was a hard-drinking womanizier - Stout makes no bones about calling him an alcoholic - and a greedy, crass, impetuous, selfish, pain in management's ass.)

In telling this story, Stout lays bare some truths: Ruth was a selfish player who looked out for himself (and his bank account) first and foremost, Frazee was a competent front office man whose ownership was impacted more by league politics than by his allegedly overriding love of the theatre, and the sale of Ruth to the Yankees was not seen at the time as a one-sided deal.

Frazee did not sell Ruth because he needed the cash. Indeed, looking at the details of the sale, one would assume that it was the Yankees that had significant cash flow trouble. Also, there is absolutely no connection between the sale of Ruth and Frazee's 1925 hit, No, No, Nanette. Stout calls that story a "tired, spurious, hoary old chestnut". He adds: "It's a fantasy that simply allowed Boston fans to excuse generations of losing baseball, bad management by Frazee's successors, and simplistic, poorly researched, agenda-driven history."

The Ruth transaction is a perfect example of the age-old debate about whether star players should receive preferential treatment. When a team is lucky enough to have someone as talented as Ruth, does management (and his teammates) put up with his off-field shenanigans or do they insist that all players on the team be held to the same rules? When the sale of Ruth's contract to the Yankees was announced just after New Year's in 1920, this debate raged in the Boston newspapers. Opinions were neatly divided down the middle, with plenty of fans and former players believing Ruth had to be shipped out for the good of the team.

Ruth did not magically change his personality when he arrived in New York. Only two months into the 1920 season, he was rooming by himself on the road and had installed a private phone line by his locker at the Polo Grounds. He remained the same self-absorbed player he had always been - yet in New York, he was celebrated for it. The timing was perfect, with the insatiable Ruth landing in the center of the most vibrant, most exciting, most over-the-top city in the world at the dawn of the hedonistic 1920s.

Stout refers to Ruth numerous times as "oblivious" to his surroundings. While Ruth was unquestionably self-centered and often acted as though his own goals were the only ones that existed, to insinuate that he was clueless about what was going on around him is not believable (and more than a little unfair). With regards to the potential strike before Game 5 of the 1918 World Series, the fact that Ruth is not quoted in any of the newspapers does not mean he didn't know what was going on. The only player quoted regarding the strike on either the Red Sox or the Cubs was Boston's Harry Hooper, the spokesman of the four-man representative group that met with the National Commission.

Ruth slumped during his first month with the Yankees, in 1920, entering May batting only .226 with one extra base hit. However, he soon got hot, posting a 1.384 OPS in May. His batting average soared because outfielders played so deep, it left a lot of green space for short flies and line drives to fall in.

And Ruth destroyed a long list of established records. Sam Thompson had set the all-time season slugging percentage mark in 1894 at .696. In 1920 and 1921, Ruth slugged .847 and .846. Back in 1894, Hugh Duffy had an all-time best OPS of 1.196. In 1920, Ruth obliterated that mark with an OPS that was nearly 200 points higher: 1.379.

Ruth clubbed 29 home runs in 1919, something no player had ever done. Anyone who had come close in years past, like Ned Williamson in 1884, was playing at least half his games on fields with extremely short fences that artificially boosted his totals. Then, in 1920, Ruth nearly doubled his previous record-setting total, smacking 54. And he bettered that with 59 in 1921. Ruth was not only doing things at the plate that no one else had seen, he was doing things no one could even imagine.

Ruth believed that swinging from the heels hurt his batting average. (His lifetime average of .342 is tied for ninth all-time.) If he simply tried for singles, Ruth once claimed, he could have batted .600. During his Yankees career, Ruth flirted with .400 several times. He batted over .375 four times in a five-year period, finishing 1923 at .393. I have often wondered what Ruth could have done if he had put his theory into practice, and tried making contact for small hits for an entire season. He probably would not have hit .600, though. Probably.
The Selling of the Babe appears not to have been proofread. At all. The book contains more typographical errors than any book I have ever seen. There are seven errors on pages 146-147 alone. Discounting missing commas before quotes and in the middle of run-on sentences, and sentences that end in commas instead of periods, I compiled a list of more than three dozen typos. (And I'm sure my list is far from definitive.) One typo referred to Red Sox pitcher Carl Mays's "emotional and metal" problems.

There are incorrect words ("if" instead of "it" and "it" instead of "in", as though the manuscript was scanned but not cleaned up), misplaced apostrophes ("the Tiger's Ty Cobb"), and (especially) extra words in sentences: "baseball had a faced a challenge", "a big league team team", "for the that year's World Series", and "seemed like he did didn't want to".

In addition, this book could have used one more round of rewriting/editing. There are too many run-on sentences that should be split up, far too many confusing moments when a reader is not sure who is the subject of a sentence. There are awkward word choices: "wise-old heads shaking their heads" and "Those he favored reaped the benefits in the form of favorable trades and other favors".

I want to emphasize that none of these errors should diminish the quality and depth of Stout's research, but they do reflect extremely poorly on the entire production. If I was in Stout's shoes, I'd be smoke-coming-out-of-my-ears furious at Thomas Dunne for its lazy, unprofessional work on the book.

1 comment:

laura k said...

Great review. So many baseball announcers need to read this book!

I notice Thomas Dunne is a Macmillan imprint. In the 1980s, I proofread for Macmillan, getting paid by the page. Two independent proofreaders would read each book. That was all cut back in the 1990s.

Most houses now expect authors to supply their own proofreading and indexing. Authors often cannot afford that and try to proof it themselves, or get a friend to do it.

I have no idea if that's what happened with Stout's book, but it's usually the case these days. It's more evidence of how little time and resources are invested in quality writing these days.